When the Boston Celtics convened for media day back in September, they were the heavy favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in this season's NBA Finals, and arguably no team in the league had a brighter road ahead.
Brad Stevens saw something different."I knew going in that it was going to be super challenging, but October screamed it," the Celtics coach told ESPN recently. "I knew after the first two exhibition games, it was going to be really, really hard."
There are plenty of reasons to explain why this season was so hard, and why these Celtics were so disappointing. At the root of all of them, though, is Irving — and, more specifically, his leadership through words and actions on and off the court.
"I mean, we had nothing to lose last year," Irving told reporters. "We had nothing to lose and everybody could play free, and do whatever they wanted and nobody had any expectations.
What we were supposed to be, at a certain point, we surpassed that. Young guys were supposed to be at a certain point, they surpassed that.
"We come into this season, expectations, and it's real. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players, it's very much real every single day, so that's new. It's tough. It's hard."
Irving repeatedly would poke at the team's young players — specifically Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — through the media. He wouldn't explicitly call them out, just as he didn't in Orlando. But it was clear whom he was referring to.
In the wake of Brown's comments, Irving apologized following a win over the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 16.
But then, in the glow of one of Boston's best victories of the season, Irving made a stunning admission that made everyone completely forget about what had happened for the prior 48 minutes.
In the wake of his blowup in Orlando, Irving had called LeBron James — the player he'd demanded to be traded away from 18 months earlier — to apologize for how he dealt with James' leadership and criticism while they were teammates.
Through Boston's fits and starts, there was one thing that didn't appear to be an issue: Irving's commitment to the Celtics.
At a season-ticket holder event at TD Garden in early October, Irving pledged to re-sign with the Celtics the following summer.
When directly asked about his prior commitment to re-sign with the Celtics, and if it still held, Irving had only this to say: "Ask me July 1."
And while Irving made it clear he still believed in what Boston could accomplish, he said that his October commitment had been an example of getting caught up in the excitement of the moment
A single thing didn't derail this Celtics season. Across the roster, players failed to completely buy into their roles. Some of that falls on Stevens, whose job it is to manage stars and expectations.
Hayward's recovery was never assured of taking a linear path. And the Davis situation was a stunner.
The question now is what Irving will do when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.